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Wednesday, 28 August 2019

From Coverage to Learning: Making the Shift in Indian Schools

“But if thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought.” – George Orwell

I walk into a Standard 9 classroom. It’s a Physics Class on “Force and the Laws of Motion.” Dressed in a bright blue sari, the teacher stands at the front of the room and patiently explains Newton’s first law of motion. Then she asks a question based on it. A few diligent children in the front two rows seem to be taking down notes. Two very bright boys call out answers in response to the teacher’s question. In the back of the class, however, one boy stares vacantly out the window, gazing at the tree in the distance. Another girl is busy drawing an elaborate design on a piece of scrap paper at the back of her notebook. While the hot midday sun streams in through the window, a number of students fidget in their seats, looking confused and lost.

The teacher smiles wearily at the class, and then bravely marches on to introduce the next law and ask the next question.

When I chatted with the teacher after class, I asked her why she didn’t slow down to check for understanding and review concepts, when so many students seemed to be having difficulty following what she was teaching. “But I need to cover the portions,” she responded, “I don’t have time to stop.”

When I started visiting Indian schools as an education consultant, perhaps what struck me most forcefully was the tremendous emphasis on “coverage.” The phrase “cover the portions” is used so widely across our schools, and it has seeped so deeply into the psyche of our teachers, that it seems to dictate what happens in the classroom.

In schools across Tamil Nadu, teachers use a certain kind of language. They worry about “covering the portions,” and they spend a lot of time thinking and talking about “revisions, exams, and marks.” They also try to “get through the text book” and “ensure that students do the book back questions” (or in normal speak, the questions at the back of each chapter in the text book). They make sure that they “clarify doubts” by giving students the right answers.

While they use the verb “teaching” a lot, they rarely use the verb “learning.”

Rarely do I hear teachers use words such as “learning, thinking, imagining, wondering, analyzing, and creating.” I keep looking for these words in our conversations, but like beautiful flowers that bloom very rarely, they remain elusive.

Having taught for many years, I know from experience that just because I have taught something doesn’t mean that students have learned it. Teaching and learning are not synonyms, though ideally learning should be the outcome of good teaching.

Similarly, coverage and understanding are not synonyms either. A teacher can “cover” the portions, but that does not mean that students have understood anything.

Furthermore, in many schools across our country, the end goal of education seems to be “scoring on exams.” A “good school” is one with “good results.” But “high exam scores and good results” are not synonyms for “long term success and happiness.” (In fact, studies show that the correlation between a student’s exam scores in school and his or her long term professional and personal success and happiness is surprisingly weak.)

What I wonder, however, is how the language that we use shapes the way we think about education. If we changed our language, would we also change our thinking and behavior?

What would our education system be like if teachers felt less pressure to “cover portions” and more pressure to ensure that students are engaged and learning? What if we didn’t just “clarify doubts” but actually pushed our students to think more deeply and ask more questions? What if we worried less about preparing our students for exams and more about preparing our students for life? What if we shifted our language to regularly include words like learning, imagining, questioning, wondering, analyzing, inferring, creating, and thinking. What would our education system be like then?

Perhaps then, the teacher in that physics class on the laws of motion would be free to slow down and check for understanding. Perhaps she’d even have the time and motivation to come up with imaginative ways to teach each concept so that every child could access it. And the outcome of the class would not be mere “coverage,” but would instead be “deeper engagement, thinking, and learning.”

Monday, 7 November 2016


On Reading:

The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller
Reading in the Wild, by Donalyn Miller

Book Love, by Penny Kittle

Proust and the Squid:  The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolfe (brilliant and beautiful, but more complex than the titles above; this is one of my all-time favorite books)

Reading in the Brain, by Stanislas Dehaene (a little more scientific and technical, but a very interesting read.)

On Early Childhood (Great for parents as well)

Your Child’s Growing Mind, by Jane Healy

Einstein Never Used Flashcards, by Hirsch and Golinkoff

What Every Kindergarten Teacher Should Know, by M.B.Wilson

On Math:

What’s Math Got to Do With It? By Joanne Boaler (some interesting insights, even though I'm generally critical of Jo Boaler's approaches, which have fuelled so much of contemporary "reform" Math instruction in the US)

Number Sense, by Stanislas Dehaene (quite scientific, little more difficult but interesting)

On Teaching Character

Mindset, by Carol Dweck

How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough

The Whole Brain Child, by Daniel Siegel

On Schools/Education/Learning more generally

The One World Schoolhouse, by Salman Khan (founder of the Khan academy)

Education Nation, by Milton Chen

Why Children Don’t Like School, by Daniel Willingham

Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting & Education for the Global Age, by Maya Thiagarajan (Lots of great info on math, reading, memory and other hot-button education topics.)

On Assessment

Embedding Formative Assessment: Practical techniques for K-12 teachers, by Dylan Williams

On Learning and the Brain/Neuroscience

How the Brain Works, by Donald Kotulak

The Jossey Bass Reader on the Brain and Learning, Edited by Kurt Fischer

The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains, by Nicolas Carr

Brain Rules, by John Medina

On the Importance of Nature for Children

Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv

On Curriculum Design and Pedagogy

Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins
Understanding By Design, by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins

Making Thinking Visible (multiple authors)

Cultivating Intellectual Character, Ron Ritchard (I found this book really interesting, and it certainly had a big impact on my teaching.)

On East-West Differences in Education and Learning

The Cultural Foundations of Learning, by Jin Li (very academic, but very interesting)
Beyond The Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age, by Maya Thiagarajan

On Multiple Intelligences

Frames of Mind, by Howard Gardner

Multiple Intelligences, by Howard Gardner

Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman

Other Important Books for Educators

Quiet, by Susan Cane (on introverted children)

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, by Winifred Gallagher (on focus and attention)

Flourish, by Martin Seligman (on Positive Psychology)

 What books would you add to this list? Please let me know!

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

And the real culprit is...overstimulation

Bleary eyed. Heads down on their desks. Yawns.

Why are these kids always so tired?

Everyday, my students walk into class looking exhausted. When I ask them how they're doing, invariably the response I get is, "I'm so tired." And increasingly, kids tell me that they feel anxious, overwhelmed, and stressed.

Parents and teachers tend to assume that the culprit is too much schoolwork. If we assign less homework, the kids will be fine. If we have fewer assessments, the stress will dissipate.

But I don't think that schoolwork is the primary culprit.

The primary culprit for rising levels of exhaustion, anxiety, and stress is overstimulation, something I've written about here. Students today have too much going on in their lives -- and between the floods of emails, digital notifications, pings on their phones, visual images, tweets, back-to-back enrichment activities, social engagements, assignments, deadlines, commitments, sugar binges, sports tournaments, and snapchat -- they're just so overstimulated that their bodies and minds can't actually handle it. (The same is true for many working adults as well, I think. We're just way too overstimulated.)

Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think that speed is always a good thing. And I'm not sure that "efficiency" and "productivity" (all words that describe machines and the mechanization of society) are the goals that we should be working towards. The fact is, we're not machines, and our job is not to "process" vast quantities of information and "perform" one task after another. If you ask me, human=machine is a destructive metaphor.

We're people. We're human. We're reflective, contemplative, emotional, irrational, and complex. And that's what makes us so interesting and creative.

And the reality is that our bodies and minds haven't yet caught up with the frenzied pace of an overstimulated digital and global world. And while we may think that "working like a machine" is a good thing in this age of machine-like multitasking, efficiency, and speed, the fact of the matter is that we're destroying ourselves by trying to be more machine-like, more overstimulated, more busy than we can actually handle.

So my goal for my own children is to lower the levels of stimulation that they encounter at home.
  • They don't need sugary snacks and lots of treats; they need vegetables.
  • They don't need social media; they need cuddles and real life, face-to-face conversations with their parents and grandparents.
  • They don't need a flood of bite-sized superficial bits of information, they need old-fashioned books, the longer the better.
  • They don't need back-to-back enrichment activities, they need time at home to read, daydream, play, and rest.
  • They don't need so much breadth -- so much exposure to so many, many different things all at once; they need depth in their lives. Let's do less, much less, but let's do it better.
  • They don't need to "work like machines" and "multi-task" and "be efficient." They need to work like humans -- slowly, reflectively, contemplatively, creatively. You know what? They need some time to daydream, imagine, and think. They need to slow down.

And here's the catch. If they have a little more time to get their homework done, slow and sustained academic work may actually help them feel more centred, more focused, and more calm. Like I said, I don't think that it's academic work that's the problem. It's all the other stuff .... the hyper-stimulated world that our kids live in.

What Does It Take To Be A Great Teacher?

So what really makes a great teacher? Last year, I asked my graduating class this question and their reply was interesting: great teachers are ones who care about students.

And this, to me, I think is the most important and rewarding part of teaching. Great teaching always happens in the context of a strong, supportive, and mutually respectful relationship. When a student knows that a teacher genuinely cares about his or her well-being and learning, then the student becomes deeply invested in the learning process. The more I think about it, the more I think that the teacher-student relationship is, in fact, the most essential pre-requisite for great teaching and deep learning.

I would add that the next essential element is a deep passion for one's subject matter and the teacher's own love of learning. If teachers are to inspire students, they need to be inspired themselves. They need to be scholars and model intellectual excitement for their students.

And finally, teachers need to work hard. Great teaching is very hard work. It's intellectually, emotionally, and even physically draining.

Increasingly, I find all the raging discussions about pedagogy somewhat irrelevant. Some great teachers are constructivist, others may use a more traditional approach. Some great teachers may run tightly ordered classrooms with lots of rules, others may run more relaxed classrooms. Some great teachers may engage their students in lots of activities, others may choose more traditional lectures and discussions. Pedagogy, I think, is important, but in the larger scheme of things, it's not what defines a great teacher. The reality is that kids can learn in a wide range of ways, and great teaching can happen in many different forms.

However, what great teachers have in common are the following:
- They care about their students. And their students know it.
- They care about their subjects, and they demonstrate a deep love of learning themselves.
- They work hard. Very, very hard.

Saturday, 20 August 2016


Here's a blog post that I recently wrote for Ed Week's Global Learning section. I hope you enjoy it!

And a taster extract:
Lesson #1: Lesson #1: Educators don't need to accommodate short attention spans; we need to train kids to extend their attention spans.
Many of the Singaporean educators I spoke with, particularly elementary school teachers, described the benefits of making young kids complete long and demanding academic tasks. Kids spend hours learning how to write thousands of complex Chinese characters. From grade two onward, they take exams that last for 90 minutes in each of their four major subjects. Yes, that's right: seven year oldscan sit down and concentrate on math for an hour and a half.
When I expressed surprise (or shock and horror, to be more precise) over this, parents and educators agreed that Singaporean kids experience significant educational stress because of the exam system, but none of them seemed to think that it was asking too much to make a young child sit down and focus on a single task for an hour and a half. "These tests and activities help train our children to shut out distractions, focus their minds, and concentrate," said one teacher. Said a parent, "It is important to teach our children to focus for extended periods of time. That's a very important skill."

Read the whole article here.

Friday, 5 August 2016

It's not just about IQ and EQ; 21st century kids need CQ

Although it's not cool to admit it, most parents care deeply about their kids' IQ or Intelligence Quotient. I've heard parents of toddlers boast about how "smart" their kids are. (For the record, I think that IQ is a very narrow concept, which doesn't adequately reflect the many different ways in which our children can be intelligent; it does not, for example, measure a child's musical ability or imagination.)

In the last decade, we've also started to care about EQ or Emotional Quotient. Of course, we all want emotionally stable and sensitive kids who get along with others. Without a doubt, our ability to foster and maintain good relationships is key to our happiness and success, personally and professionally.

We're all trying to raise kids who enjoy learning, study hard, relate well to others, and manage their emotions effectively. We know that IQ and EQ matter for professional success, and perhaps (particularly with EQ) for long-term happiness.

Well, guess what? In a global age, we've got a new quotient that is equally important. We've got CQ or Cultural Quotient, a measure of someone's cross-cultural competence, or in other words, their sensitivity to different cultural viewpoints and their ability to work effectively in different cultural contexts.

Consider how global the workplace is these days -- companies are global and workforces are diverse. And opportunities are global too. An Indian graphics designer based in Chennai might do freelance work for a client in France, for example. Our kids need to be equipped to cross cultural borders and navigate a global, intercultural world.

And in addition to the practical implications, CQ can help us create a less prejudiced, kinder and more humane world. And that's very important.

As a global educator who has taught in the US, Singapore, and India, I think that parents can and should consider ways to help a child develop their CQ.
We can help our kids empathize with others from different contexts.
We can help our kids view an issue or story through different cultural lenses and from different perspectives.
We can help our kids understand beliefs, values, norms and conventions of different cultures.
And we can help our kids judge others less and empathize with them more. Ultimately, we want to foster open-mindedness and empathy.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Read multicultural books to your kids when they are young. Here are some options to start with.

2. Buy multicultural books for your kids to read independently as they grow older. Here's a great list to start with.

3. Encourage kids to learn more about other cultures through food -- take them to different kinds of restaurants or try cooking different cuisines at home.

4. Encourage kids to learn about the stories and beliefs behind different religions; these foundational stories will help your kids understand other people's world views, and it will help your child develop a respect for other people's beliefs. Here is a post on the impact of foundational stories from around the world.

5. Teach your child a foreign language.

6. Travel -- if you can afford to take your children on trips to different places, this is a great way to help them develop their CQ. If you can't travel to another city or country, then find opportunities within your own city -- perhaps there's a Chinese New Year celebration in your city's Chinatown neighborhood, or perhaps there's a Korean play that your kids can watch in a neighborhood theatre. Seek out these opportunities.

7. Remember that it's important to cross borders and shed prejudices within your own city or country -- for example, Hindu kids in India could learn more about Islam and get to know their Muslim neighbors better. CQ is about crossing borders -- of race, religion, language, culture, and socio-economic status. It's about relating to someone whose context and life is a little different from your own. You don't have to fly across the world to develop CQ -- sometimes, the most difficult borders to cross are the ones right around us.

So parents, don't just focus on IQ and EQ; consider ways to help your child develop his/her CQ as well.